BISMARCK - The North Dakota foster care system is set to undergo some major changes.

The Family First Prevention Services Act, included in the Bipartisan Budget Act that President Donald Trump signed into law in February, aims to keep children with parents or relatives rather than in the foster care system and provides additional funding for prevention services.

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On Thursday, Nov. 15, the North Dakota Department of Human Services held an informational meeting on the law for counties, which administer child welfare services in the state.

Kelsey Bless, permanency administrator for the Division of Children and Family Services, called the new law "a monumental shift in federal funding."

"It will take our deep-end services to a new level to really enhance our prevention (services), which is first in a lifetime, honestly," she said.

The bill put more federal funding toward mental health services, substance abuse treatment and in-home parent skills-based programs. The federal government will match state funding for these services for up to 12 months.

Those who qualify for services must be families of children who meet the requirement of a "candidate for foster care," according to Bless, or "a child who is at imminent risk of removal."

On Thursday, Kristi Craig, senior director of public policy for Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit group focused on child welfare, provided an overview of the bill.

"After several years of seeing the decline in foster care then start rising, Congress took a look at this trend, and they were also examining the outcomes that were related for child safety, permanency and well-being," she said. "Quite honestly, they weren't seeing the outcomes that they wanted to see, so they were moved to act."

The Family First Act took many years to be developed and was endorsed by more than 500 organizations, she said.

The "largest challenge" with the new law in North Dakota relates to foster care group homes, also called "congregate care," according to Bless.

Though there's been a decrease recently in congregate care placements in North Dakota, the state ranks 11th in the nation, or 60 percent over the national average, according to data from DHS.

Also, North Dakota is the eighth highest in the nation for the number of children in foster care. Since 2012, the number of children in foster care in the state has grown 41 percent.

Foster care group homes are seen as a last resort in the state, according to Bless, who said the preference is for a child to be with a family member, but, if that doesn't work, then they would be placed in a group home, which will always serve a need.

"There's always going to be a need for short-term stabilization ... the law allows for us to have that continue, but they are requiring states to monitor it every 60 days in order for payments to continue," she said.

Under the new law, the federal government also won't pay for a child to stay in a group home longer than two weeks.

Bless said, effective Oct. 1, 2019, North Dakota will not have foster care group homes. Instead, group home providers must become "qualified residential treatment providers," which means they must meet additional criteria, including having evidence-based trauma-informed care on site and nursing staff available, among other requirements.

"It is a challenge. It's actually a really hard conversation for (group home providers)," Bless said.

The law also requires states to devise a plan to prevent children from dying of abuse and neglect, which Bless said the state already has developed.

On Thursday, DHS officials also discussed ways counties can reduce congregate care placements and increase kinship, or relative, placements.